The Pixel Paradox and the NFL Game Experience

Who is it, exactly, that wants those gargantuan HD screens at NFL games? You already know.
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On game days, Cowboys Stadium uses more electricity than the entire nation of Liberia. Which, besides being something Jerry Jones would surely high-five someone over, has much to do with the massive HD screen hanging over the field of play. In this essay, which first appeared in The Classical Magazine's "Being There" issue (and which you can still purchase for an extremely reasonable price here), Aaron Gordon examines the wherefores and whys of pro sports owners turning their stadiums into security-steeped, supremely extractive living rooms.

It’s a math problem, at least as the people who own sports teams understand it. Watch a sporting event at home, and your screen is too close to your face relative to the resolution that the screen offers. You are not getting everything, of course, but what you are getting is good and getting better, and essentially free of charge. For those inclined to see fans as Consumer Units with some tenuously understood preferences mindlessly following their baser instincts in their animalistic quest for Utils—that is, for people who work for pro sports teams—this is a simple problem with a simple solution.

That is, the screens at home are too sharp, too clear, relative to the screens at the stadium. So make the screens at the stadium better, and the fans will return, will in fact pay handsomely—personal seat licenses and expensive, remote parking and beers the price of movie tickets and the like—for the privilege of watching the game on a bigger, brighter, better screen.

This is how the Pixel Wars began. Starting in 2009, more or less, an arms race began to have the largest stadium video board, with no stadium holding the title for very long. Cowboys Stadium took it over with much gawking and yee-hawing and some coastal facepalming and extemporizing about decadence and excess and such, back in August of 2009. The Cowboys are only so happy to produce a Fact Sheet about the video boards themselves, manufactured by Mitsubishi to have the same resolution as the best HDTV money could buy at the time, even though it’s the size of 4,920 52” flat panel TVs put together.

The Tennessee Titans stole the title for the largest end zone video board for a brief period in 2012. The Houston Texans surpassed the Cowboys for the largest video board in sports—racetracks excepted—later in 2012, but the Texans won’t get to play even a single game with their video boards as the NFL’s largest. That’s because this June, the Jacksonville Jaguars announced they would build the largest video board in football for a cool—as in, that “cool” guy in Ray Bans who rolled up in his Maserati to the fist-pumpiest night club in town and warns the valet he counted the pennies in the ashtray—26 million taxpayer dollars. It will be larger than any individual pair of human eyes can put into focus simultaneously: 16,626 square feet, or 44 percent larger than the Cowboys Stadium sideline screens.

It’s not just a football thing. A very incomplete list of teams that have announced or received new, very large high-definition scoreboards since 2009 include: Tampa Bay Lightning, Seattle Mariners, Denver Broncos, Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers, Houston Astros, Utah Jazz, Detroit Tigers, Washington Redskins, New England Patriots, and Green Bay Packers. With few exceptions, teams either got a stadium or a scoreboard, or in some cases both.

The Pixel Wars have opened a new front, with television companies lobbying a heavy counter-attack with their 4k TVs set to debut this summer in the United States, offering an unprecedented pixel concentration in your home. The owners will be behind the trends once again, and will need to devise a strategy to attract the fan’s eyeballs to exceptionally-defined screens at large venues.

After all, this is a competition to attract human eyes to digital screens. According to owners, that’s what fans come to stadiums to see. This might also be a good place to note that all of this—from the owners’ fundamental assumption that sports fans demand a higher-definition game-watching experience above all else to the expensive and self-satirizing quest for The Biggest Screen—is pretty silly. Crucially, the people who seem least aware of this are the ones hanging these screens in their stadiums and domes, demanding more pixels, more clarity, as their notion of who comes to watch and why renders with the definition of the ancient Jumbotrons relegated to garbage heaps.

***

When you walk into a stadium, no matter where, the ritual is the same: a desultory pat-down and wanding (or a less-desultory one, depending on security-guard zeal), a quick trip to the bathroom, perhaps a beverage purchase, and locating your section. I’ve been to 43 different stadiums in five countries, and can attest that the single and most powerful commonality between them is the feeling of emerging from a crowded, circular concrete concourse and seeing the playing surface emerge, like the final movement of a Beethoven symphony, suddenly and brightly into view.

When the sport is baseball, hockey or soccer, there’s an irony between these surfaces’ natural beauty and the extreme, almost unnatural care that those surfaces receive. Spot a supermodel or movie star on a city sidewalk and the feeling is more or less the same: something that’s both clearly and recognizably human, but which seems impossibly other and alien for the implausibility of its angles and chemically treated uniformity.

If the sport is basketball, the fundamental sameness of the floor only heightens this effect: this could could be any gym, any place you’ve ever played, except for how glowingly and transcendently it is not; in particular, the humans on the court who are closer in height to the average elephant than their own species. So much varies—the setting, the sport, the weather, everything, really—but the only thing that never changes is the reminder: all those clean perfections, big and little, and seen at just enough of a distance to make them tangible and still so simple, serving as a reminder that everyone is there to see a game.

So here’s the Pixel Paradox: fans go to a stadium for the express purpose of not-watching a screen, but owners are installing more-and-better screens at the stadiums, ostensibly to enhance the fan experience. That is, to lure fans from the comfortable seats and high-definition screens in their homes to the less-comfortable, more expensive seats and larger, bigger-and-deffer screens in stadiums.  

In the most recent NFL owner’s meeting, Stephen Jones, the NFL Executive Vice President, said stadium innovations and getting fans off the couch and into stadium seats is issue “1-A”(narrowly behind that pesky concussion thing, of course). The NFL has mandated changesthat include cameras in the locker room to show edited content to fans in the stadium, allowing replays after all key plays to fans in the stadium, and allowing the use of more audio before each play and unlimited video to “stir the crowd”.

The capacities are there to provide all this, but the result sounds like an actual sports fan’s stadium dystopia. More Pitbull and Flo Rida blasting from the speakers at a deafening tone, edited-for-effect clips of players shouting Ray Lewis-esque nonsensibilities in the locker room instantly broadcast to your device via enhanced stadium WiFi capabilities, which are part and parcel with the stadium enhancements.

"It's what our fans want," proclaimed Baltimore Ravens President Dick Cass, who is a member of a league committee called the Fan Experience Working Club group (yes, they actually put the word “club” in the title of the group about how to improve the average fan’s experience). "They want the ability to take out their tablet, send a Facebook picture and check the fantasy football scores, so we have to provide that." Referring to fans in this academic third person is a theme amongst NFL executives. The NFL’s planned innovations suggest it’s more than just a rich man’s rhetorical tic.

NFL owners are reacting to an emerging statistical trend: since 2007, attendance has been slowly declining. Never mind that ticket prices have risen 17% over that same time span, or that the very nature of NFL Sunday Ticket—for which the league collected a hefty $4 billionextension in 2009—and the scheduling format of the games makes being at home or in a bar more appealing, no matter how many locker room interviews are shown on the Jumbotron. The owners are trying to solve what they perceive as a real problem. Please, nobody tell them attendance actually went up in 2012, and don’t mention that attendance is a poor measure of actually important things like popularity or profit. Likewise, new stadiums open at different capacities each year and TV contracts can be renewed for vastly more revenuethan any attendance increase or dip could possibly register.  

It’s possible owners are ahead of an emerging trend, and that fans in America don’t go to sporting events to watch sports anymore. Deadspin is now documenting this trend under the “Bored Fans” series, featuring surreptitious snapshots of fans reading from their tablets or playing cell phone games in seats that cost more than the average monthly cellular bill, eyes drawn to a digital surface rather than the verymreal game just beyond their purposeless gaze. It may be that fans would in fact rather watch a game on the biggest possible screen than on a field, or that they won’t buy a ticket unless it comes with a suitable second-screen experience, or at least enough connectivity to tweet “SMDH!! #HTTR” after an Alfred Morris fumble. This would be a terrible bummer, for a bunch of reasons. But for the people paying for these big new screens, the customer must always be right.

***

The NFL has become particularly deft at reacting to issues with flashbang grenades rather than genuine solutions. Roger Goodell loops the concussion epidemic in with “player safety” initiatives like the zealously, haplessly over-prosecuted New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. This resume-building disciplinary approach—the pursuit of prize scofflaws to be taxidermied and displayed in Goodell’s office—stands in contrast to the league’s blithe willingness to, for instance, put players at tremendous riskby allowing games to be officiated by dangerously unqualified replacement referees out of pure union-busting principle. Each additional player arrested is a travesty, but each front office executive arrestedfor the same offense is a mistake to be considered in context.

In the case of stadium attendance, empty seats are a perceived black-eye and public relations problem for the league, as opposed to a minor—perhaps even random or statistically insignificant—0.8% fluctuation in attendance for the entire league over the course of a season. These smallest and most cosmetic of problems are the ones that demand the most expensive solutions. And so the league wanders its landscape—a place with real problems, it should be said—with a billion-dollar hammer, looking for stray nails.

In another move to address a problem so mysterious that it may not actually exist—this time under the guise of increased security theater—the league is instituting a new bag policythis year. Which is to say, the NFL doesn’t want fans to have bags unless you buy the officially licensed ones:

The NFL strongly encourages fans to not bring any type of bags, but outlined what is permissible:

•Bags that are clear plastic, vinyl or PVC and do not exceed 12” x 6” x 12.” (Official NFL team logo clear plastic tote bags are available through club merchandise outlets or at nflshop.com), or

•One-gallon clear plastic freezer bag (Ziploc bag or similar).

•Small clutch bags, approximately the size of a hand, with or without a handle or strap can be taken into the stadium with one of the clear plastic bag options.

•An exception will be made for medically necessary items after proper inspection at a gate designated for this purpose.

Aside from automatically pissing off 50 percent of the populationand a growing portion of NFL fans—a population segment to which I do not belong, but which I have observed to be pretty into carrying opaque bags—it’s difficult to square this policy with the league’s “fan experience” initiative. As of this writing and through several preseason games, the entirely predictable result of hour-long linesand enraged fanshas come to fruition.

It’s hard to frame this as a matter of efficiency—speedy coat/bag check lines are a species so rare they deserve their own dedicated nonprofits—but I’ve also never seen a tablet case that fits any of these descriptions—and we know, because the Fan Experience Working Club has told us as much, that those tablets are very important indeed. It’s hard to imagine anyone bringing an expensive tablet into a stadium environment, anyway—what with various liquids flying and sloshing and intentionally-vomiting individualsroaming the stands—unless it was safely within a liquid-proof pouch of some kind. There is, of course, no Working Club suggesting that stadiums sell less beer in order to become safer spaces for iPads and the fans who can’t enjoy a game without them. Maybe sell official barf-proof team-logo tablet skins at the team store? Yeah, they’ve already thought of that.

***

In the end, the Pixel War—and the pursuit of the most expensive add-on solution to the notional “fan experience” problem in general—is almost comically obtuse. It’s worth wondering who might believe that a decline in attendance has less to do with the whole $400-for-a-family-of-four-to-go-to-a-football-game thing than with an insufficiently gargantuan Jumbotron experience or an inadequate supply of readily meme-able video content for those in stadium seats.

A person who believes all that would not understand that the whole touchdown-commercial-extra point-commercial-kickoff-commercial routine is hugely tedious when viewed from a couch, and worse to those waiting it out in the upper deck when the wind chill hovers darkly around 10 degrees. Or that the pixel density of the newest video board is a non sequitur when it plays the same ads fans see at home. Or when it projects, absurdly, the live feed of the same game occurring right in front of you, on the field in your field of vision from the seat in which you paid (a lot!) to sit.

But let’s leave that. Let’s agree with owners that the fan experience is in fact deteriorating, but stipulate that this is at least partially their own doing. With their video boards, interactive features, and absolutely everything about the new Falcons stadium—from the rumble seats to the bar that shows you where the ball is so you don’t have to, you know, actually watch the game—it seems that the last people owners have in mind when designing and revamping stadiums are those who actually want to watch the game.

There’s nothing about WiFi—or video boards, or any of the other popular stadium newfanglements—that is inherently counterproductive to enjoying a live sports experience. Replays help us understand the game better—even if they’re accompanied by Troy Aikman’s analysis—and having access to different camera angles on your tablet would close the home-to-stadium gap further. If there was in fact a “fan experience” problem in sports, these would, in theory, be actual “fan experience” solutions. But there is no actual fan experience problem. There’s an owner experience problem.

Despite all these inconveniences—the bag policies, the ticket prices, “Seven Nation Army” going strong on its second decade—we still go. There are those who might be kept away by various inconveniences, but there are many others who still gladly take this pilgrimage, even knowing that their pockets will be thoroughly and uncomfortably picked and re-picked with every return to their holy sites. We still hurriedly shuffle through the concourse to thrill at the luminous tactility of the playing surface, and are inevitably reminded why we came, even if some willful tunnel vision is necessary in the process.

For myself, I never regret going. Owners may not understand this, or they might just wish to further platinum-plate their stately publicly funded pleasure domes. But I will keep going, because that is where the game is and always will be played. The hosts can hang a big screen overhead if they want, for whatever reasons they invent. We’ll just keep looking down. 

Illustration by Eli Neugeboren


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